Katherine Ortega, the youngest of nine children, was born in 1934 in Tularosa, New Mexico. Her father once worked as a blacksmith, repairing farm equipment and tools for local farmers. Later, he opened a small restaurant in Tularosa. He moved his restaurant to Alamogordo during World War II to be near Holloman Air Force Base.
Ortega loved her large family, and her parents were kind and hardworking. "Everyone in the family was required to help with the work at hand and was told not to sit down until the work was finished," says Ortega, who was waiting on tables, running errands to the grocery store or bank, and working in the restaurant's kitchen even in third grade.
Ortega's parents wanted their children, especially their daughters, to be independent and self-sufficient. Her father believed it was important for them to be educated and able to take care of themselves. He told his daughters that if they were not treated well by the men they married, he wanted them to be able to feel they could leave and make a good living on their own. Ortega took that lesson to heart and became fiercely independent.
An avid student, Ortega graduated in the top 10 percent of her class. Throughout high school, she had worked part time for the local bank, and she continued working there full time for more than two years to save money for college. She enrolled at Eastern New Mexico University, graduating in less than three years with a degree in business and economics. During the school year at Eastern, she worked in the library, and during vacations and holidays, she worked for her hometown bank.
Ortega wanted to be a high school business teacher, but after her faculty adviser told her she would not be hired because she was Hispanic, Ortega joined her sister and brother in their Alamogordo accounting business. She later accepted an accounting position with an independent oil operation in Roswell, New Mexico.
In 1968, wanting new opportunities, Ortega moved to California to live with one of her sisters. There, Ortega worked as an accountant for a small public utility company that had just opened in California. She next became a certified public accountant in Peat Marwick's tax department.
Later, she served as vice president of Pan American National Bank in East Los Angeles. She became the first woman president of a California financial institution, Santa Ana State Bank, and was appointed by President Ronald Reagan in 1981 to serve on a Small Business Administration committee for minority-owned businesses. In 1983, Reagan appointed her the 38th Treasurer of the United States, a position she held until 1989.
"I define success as being happy with myself and accomplishing those things that are important to me," Ortega says when asked about her success in business and public service. "I do not think success has to mean an accumulation of wealth. Getting the best education possible should be a priority for young people. Also, I tell youth not to be afraid to work hard. You should always be willing to go the extra mile."
Ortega says that following her father's advice to treat people the way she would like to be treated has always served her well. "He also taught me to do a job well or not at all, and to be positive in my thoughts and deeds," she says, adding that the Horatio Alger Award is one of the highest honors she has ever received. "There are so many unsung heroes in our country," she says. "The media would do well to provide us with more positive accounts of such individuals, and I believe the Horatio Alger Association is doing a superb job in this regard."